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Shimano STI at 30

From Issue 95 • Words:Bruce Hildenbrad; Images: Graham Watson

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It has been 30 years since the introduction of Shimano Total Integration, or STI. That means a whole generation of cyclists have no clue what shifting was like “back in the day” when the gear levers were located on the downtube. Sure, we also have 12-speed cassettes and not just the eight cogs we did those same 30 years ago—but STI represented a revolution in cycling and we have never looked back.


bruce hildenbrad
Andy Hampsten, 1990 Clasica San Sebastian.

In June 1988 Andy Hampsten and his 7-Eleven teammates had been the first Shimano-sponsored riders to win a grand tour with their victory at the Giro d’Italia. To celebrate that historic accomplishment, in the fall of the same year, Shimano invited some team members to its world headquarters in Osaka, Japan. During the 10-day stay, Shimano engineers showed Hampsten the prototype of a radical new shifting system and asked him to use his Girohoned legs to try it out on their test track. “It was a game changer,” Hampsten says.

Wayne Stetina, the three-time U.S. Olympian and multiple national champion who was a Shimano North America employee, was also in Osaka that fall. During highly successful domestic racing careers, Wayne and brother Dale Stetina were notorious for tinkering with their equipment. Wayne’s job in product development for Shimano was a natural fit.

In December of 1988, he spent time testing STI equipment in the mountains around Osaka. The first prototype had the outer lever, where it is still located today, but it also had a button on the hood for downshifting. Stetina found that when he got out of the saddle, if he grabbed the hoods too tightly, the system would automatically downshift.

early 1989 dual caliper
Early 1989 dual caliper protoype, courtesy of Andy Hampsten.
phil anderson
Phil Anderson, 1990 Paris-Tours.

“I was trying to figure out somewhere else to put the trigger,” he remembers. “I had some suggestions and they said to me, ‘We are not magicians. We have to do mechanical engineering. There has to be a linkage’’ Then I came up with the idea of embedding it behind the lever they already had. They scratched their heads and said, Yeah, that might work.”

When the redesigned prototype was ready Stetina flew back to Japan to pick up a set for himself and also a set for Hampsten. One night that winter in Boulder, Colorado, I remember getting a call from Hampsten informing me that Stetina had just installed a new shifting system on his bike and insisting that I come right over and help test it out. It was way too cold, snowy and dark to take it outdoors, so we spent the better part of the evening riding around inside Hampsten’s house, shifting up and down without taking our hands off the bars. He’s a much better bike handler than me but we both still managed to leave our mark, so to speak, on a few walls and door frames!

I accompanied Hampsten on a few long rides in the Rocky Mountains. On one cold, epic day I got frozen into my Look cleats, but the STI still worked and Andy even rode it in the February 1989 Tour of the Americas before the prototype finally gave up the ghost.

Shimano had hoped to introduce STI sometime in 1989, but there were still many design issues to overcome. One such issue surrounded adding a defeat mechanism to the levers to allow a rider to switch to friction mode if the indexing failed.

davis phinney
Davis Phinney (left) and Ron Kiefel, 1990 Tour de France.

The Shimano indexing downtube shift levers had a D-ring that allowed a rider to switch to friction, but doing that with STI would be very difficult.

“There was a training camp for Team 7-Eleven in Santa Barbara,” Stetina remembers. “I was riding with Dag Otto Lauritzen and I asked him, ‘How many times did you turn it off?’ [that is, switch to friction]. He looked at me like I was an idiot and says, ‘Why would I ever want to turn it off? It always works perfectly. I would never do that.’ I said, ‘What if you crashed and it didn’t work. You just turn this little ring and it’s friction.’ And he replied, ‘Nah, I don’t need that.’ Then we knew that we were good.”

By 1990 the engineers at Shimano were close to having the system ready for production and Stetina was working on getting more pros to try it out. At the 1990 Tour de Trump his goal was to get two-time Tour de France stage winner and America’s best sprinter, Davis Phinney, on the system. The Cash Register, as Phinney was known, was very reluctant to put something so new and radical on his bike the day before America’s biggest stage race.

Stetina recalls, “I gave him my bike, which had a set of STI levers, and said, ‘Look, go out and ride this around for five minutes and come back and tell me you don’t want it on your bike. That’s fine. I just want you to know what it is. What you are passing on.’ Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes go by.

I began to wonder if he had crashed. He finally comes back and he had a huge grin on his face. And it was like, I need this on my bike, this stuff is too good. He credited his two stage wins in that Tour de Trump to the STI.”

There were a number of other changes to existing components to help facilitate the shifting of STI. Pins on the inner side of the large front chainring allowed the chain to climb, rather than be pushed, onto the big ring. Because a rider could now shift while standing up, Hyperglide cogs on the rear cassette allowed for proper chain movement under load to avoid breaking the chain when in full cry.

And dual-pivot brakes increased stopping power. “It was a huge improvement in safety and also the brake calipers were much stronger than the previous generation of calipers. On rainy, horrible descents they worked much better than the previous generation,” Hampsten says.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a bike without combined shift and brake levers. Clearly, it’s a game-changing invention that is here to stay, but when Shimano officially introduced STI to the world 30 years ago Stetina remembers what it was like trying to convince the bike industry it was the future of cycling: “It was the type of thing where a lot of people said, ‘Oh, I am not going to need that.’ And then they rode it and they said, ‘Oh yeah, I gotta have that!’”

From issue 95, get your copy here.